Saturday, July 13, 2013

CPM Activity Report #4 - July 12, 2013

We're now a little over a week past the launch of Uprising 1.2, a release that I now believe to be a pretty clear indicator of what we can expect in the coming months for Dust514. Iterative, smaller updates (in terms content - certainly not download size) that contain a mixture of gameplay and performance adjustments, along with a smattering of new gear here and there. As of the publishing of this report, the CPM has also seen what will be coming in the next two releases – and they're very much in the same vein, with 1.3 being a bit smaller than 1.2, and 1.4 potentially loaded with even more game-changing features than 1.2.

The good news is that there's little debate that the 1.2 patch hit most of the targets it was swinging for – a noticeable framerate increase, a sealed up memory leak, and a complete revision of weapon ranges to include falloff damage. In fact, the performance of the game was so noticeably improved that its created a host of "phantom" buffs / nerfs from everything to movement speed to splash damage that has everyone thinking CCP messed with mechanics they didn't even touch code-wise. Like peeling an onion another layer, speeding up Dust514's responsiveness made some weapons shine, others become obnoxious, and launched heated debates about strafe speed and hit detection. The lesson here is that during this iteration on the game's core – expect the unexpected. I seriously doubt this will be the last time we see unintended side effects of fixing many of the game's most glaring flaws.

Improvements to the core aside, the new content released in 1.2 left a lot to be desired. In my own playtime, I've been extensively testing out the new Commando heavy suit, with about every combination of dual light weapon and high/low slot module (Yes, module – I can only fit one of each with my current skill). Of all the gear additions, the Commando suit has the most promise. The ability to switch between the Assault Scrambler Rifle and the Mass Driver to pinpoint shields and armor respectively works better than fitting a complex damage modifier with either weapon individually, and mitigates the lack of fitting on the suit itself. But despite its versatility in weapon carry – its still a heavy suit, and even with the increased speed the sluggish movement fails to compensate for the lack of tank and it just can't stand toe-to-toe with an assault. If the Commando could simply run, turn, and aim as efficiently as every other light weapon class, and keep pace with your logistics partner – it would be a viable alternative frontline suit as well as an excellent flanker. Thankfully, CCP Remnant has remained active in Skype the last couple of weeks and been receptive to feedback, and I hope he continues to iterate on this suit in future releases.

Armor tanking, on the other hand, continues to suffer badly in the greater combat meta – and player predictions that the Ferroscale and Reactive plates wouldn't improve the situation were overwhelmingly confirmed. More than anywhere else, fixing the balance between shield and armor tanking is an area where CCP needs to engage the community and listen closely to feedback, and actually respond when warned that forthcoming content isn't going to work as intended. Shield energizers were added without community warning or input, and without there being any expressed need for such a module to begin with. Players (including the CPM) first discovered the stats on Ferroscale plates and Reactive armor plates from a trailer at E3, not from the developers directly, and CCP's assurance that numbers in trailers were only works-in-progress only made things more awkward when it turned out that yes, the final stats were indeed the ones in the trailer. None of the criticism in the thread posted after the trailer was taken into consideration before 1.2's release.

The fact of the matter is that situations like this are completely preventable – and reliant on every Dust designer, especially those touching game balance, having absolutely transparent public conversations about their intent well in advance of code freeze. I don't expect a dev blog for every change, but stickied forum posts with stat changes, design intent, and most importantly: follow-up discussion simply need to be a standardized part of the Shanghai studio's operations, regardless of whether it involves more man-hours or takes designers out of their comfort zones. And really, this problem isn't going to change unless it is reinforced by management from the top down – a message the CPM has continued to hammer at every opportunity. There's too much work to be done in the coming months, and CCP can't afford to waste more time editing content that would have landed in a healthy place to begin with if there had there been even a minimum level of community input.

Speaking of code freeze, the deadline for Uprising 1.3 has come and gone – and on Wednesday of this week CPM was finally shown the completed patch notes for the release, which will drop in the next couple of weeks before the end of the month. We were disappointed to have been asked about only one component of the release's content in advance of the code freeze, and than shown the patch almost two weeks later, but thankfully what we have seen, we like a lot. Uprising 1.3 will contain what I consider to be a well-executed balancing pass on not only a couple of weapons that have been driving players completely bonkers, but also to a full class of dropsuits that have been a lightning rod for debate since the revamp of the skill tree. The dropsuit adjustments were the component discussed on our internal forums in advance of code freeze, and its been very promising to see CCP Remnant listening closely to our feedback and wielding the scalpel here as opposed to a sledgehammer – despite the amount of tears on the forums about this particular class of suits.

The other good news here is that there is also an upcoming dev blog containing a much more in-depth look at the direction with which CCP wants to balance all the dropsuits – work on the rest of the existing line-up is by no means complete and you'll know more about this soon. There is also an additional dev blog under construction that contains a discussion of the overhaul on aiming that is currently underway, which appears to be going quite well judging by the excitement we've seen in CCP Wolfman, who's been play testing the changes while chatting with the CPM in Skype.

Besides the balancing pass on the dropsuits and weapons – 1.3 won't be containing much else other than some bug squashing (including a now-infamous exploit that has cropped up recently) and performance tweaks. It's a small but meaningful patch, and technically the first that was created using CCP's new internal development model by the reshuffled teams. It's also a test of the new changes in Sony's QA process as well. Uprising 1.2 on the other hand consisted more of the content they had completed to date at the time they announced their new focus and roadmap.

One really pleasant surprise this week for many players was team True Grit's pre-1.3 update to the Planetary Conquest system – a package of balancing adjustments vetted through extensive conversation with the CPM internally over the last month. Despite the debate over PC mechanics continues becoming as heated and controversial as any we've seen surrounding adjustments to Faction Warfare or 0.0 Sovereignty in EVE, True Grit has put an enormous amount of effort into engaging and listening to the community – and I continue to point to them as a model for how we'd like to interact with all the teams working on Dust514. Last but not least, while the CPM has collectively engaged and discussed PC with True Grit across our different timezones (and from our varying vantage points regarding how the mechanics have affected our corporations), I'm happy to give credit here to Kane Spero for taking the lead on this project and making sure that CCP Foxfour and CCP Nullarbor had as many community suggestions in their hands as possible, several of which are directly part of this final package.

Looking ahead, the focus of the CPM will continue to be process and procedure, attempting to drive our stake into this new development model at a time when we can be the most useful to CCP. A new internal process to adjust to and ninja 1.3 patch aside – we've been adamant that we need to see the contents of 1.4 and all future patches enough in advance for our input to be heard and responded to. There's little sense in repeating preventable community disappointment like we saw with the new armor modules.

I brought this up earlier this week during a conversation I was having with CCP Dolan, explaining that we were still in the dark about what teams existed over in Shanghai, and what each team was working on. I asked if there was any kind of internal sprint newsletter for Dust514 as there is for EVE Online, and within the hour Dolan had a copy of the latest newsletter published that day, in the CPM inboxes.

The sprint newsletter contained what we'd been craving - a breakdown of every team working on Dust514, and exactly what project each team was working on and how far along they'd progressed. Like the CMR I've discussed in my previous reports, this newsletter was another massive signal flare shedding a lot of light on the inner workings of the Shanghai studio. It's unfortunate that it didn't occur to anyone in Shanghai to share this information with us themselves, but at least the CPM now has a very strong idea of the content lined up for 1.4. CCP will share the details of 1.4 when they're ready, but I can tell you that I'm even more excited for the additions coming in August than I am either for 1.2 or 1.3.

Lastly, I've asked or another meeting with CCP Praetorian, who is currently on vacation but should arrive back in Shanghai on Monday. We have a lot of items to discuss, though the CPM's primary interest will be once again following up on issues surrounding information sharing – both in how CCP engages us internally as well as how we can address the inconsistency that is still present across the various Dust514 teams in terms of transparency and communication. There are still too many areas (like vehicle balancing) where previously communicative developers seem to disappear into the ether for periods of time, leaving players confused, upset, and resorting to unfocused complaint in the absence of a productive discussion to engage with. While the situation is undoubtedly improving, its still far too early for the CPM let the pressure off those in management that can reverse this trend once and for all.